Friday, December 7, 2012

Care and Feeding of the Voice - Powering It Out

I always use a microphone.  Always.  I have a pretty strong voice for speaking, and I can fill a space pretty well, but there is no need for it when we have such technological marvels as microphones.

I often encounter people who are a bit annoyed by my request that the forum offer a microphone.  If they do not have a good sound system, I will bring my own, but I always ask for one.  There are some general responses when I ask for amplification.  They are as follows.

The space is not that big.

Our last performer didn't use a microphone.

There aren't that many children.

You have a pretty big voice.

None of that has anything to do with why I want a microphone.  The fact of the matter is that a storyteller only works so long as their voice is intact.  If you over stress your vocal chords, you can cause yourself months of hurt.

I am a trained speaker.  That means I have years of vocal training to help me get through a show if the mic should fail, but it is never my desire to power through forty five minutes of intricate vocal work while still being loud enough to be heard by two hundred people in a gymnasium, which was surely never built with acoustics perfect for a single performer.

So, with this in mind, here are some tips for those of us who work in the telling fields.  This is mostly beginner stuff, but it sometimes helps to be reminded.

1 - if you are doing something with your voice and it makes your throat a bit sore...stop.

2 - if you drink water during your set, room temperature water is best.  Your vocal chords are at their ease and move freely when they are warm.  Hitting them with cold water means you are straining them until they warm up again.  Don't fight yourself.

3 - For most people, eating dairy is not a good choice before going on stage as it encourages the production of mucus.

4 - Only you know how long it takes for your voice to recover after you hurt yourself.  Don't push it.  If you feel like you have to pull back from a story because it requires a bit more than you have, tell something else.

5 - If your throat is sore after a performance, unless you are ill, it means you are straining your vocal chords.  Get yourself a good reference book.  Better yet, contact Doug Lipman.  He should be able to point you in the right direction!

6 - Don't let someone talk you into hurting your voice.  Just because you can bring the power to fill a room doesn't mean you should.  Voices need a rest.  The older you get, the more that is true.  The microphone gives your voice more running time.  It also means you are directing less energy into the level of sound and you can devote that energy to the craft of the tale.

Like I said, much of this is obvious, but every now and then, it is good to be reminded that if someone gets testy with you about amplification, it is okay to remind them that they are only getting one or two shows from you, but that is not the end of your obligations.  if you blow your voice out on Tuesday, is that fair to the four shows you have on Friday?

Happy Telling -

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Telling Folktales in Schools

I am spending the week in Mesa, AZ telling stories to wonderful groups of students.  Yesterday, after I arrived at the gig and before I'd done any sets, a woman came up to me to find out what I was doing there.  She was the curriculum coordinator for the school.  I told her I was a storyteller and she asked if I was going to be doing original pieces or if I was going to 'read' folktales.

I explained that when I am in schools I always tell folktales.  I never do original stuff except with middle school.  I tend to tell seventh grade family stories, but there is a developmental reason for that and I inevitably end their sets with traditional material.  She was interested in that idea, but I must confess, her response was something I rarely find.

Normally, after I tell someone that I am committed to doing folktales in schools, they assume this is because I lack the creativity or writing skills to come up with my own stories.  I am sometimes dismissed by the person I am speaking to as 'less than'.  It is not uncommon for the person to mention one of the many tellers who tells personal or original tales and insinuate that I ought to be living up to their example.  I've learned to smile at people when they respond to me in this manner and go on about my business.

You can't please everyone and I don't intend to try.  No matter what anyone else says or thinks, when I look in the bathroom mirror in the morning, I'm there by myself and it is that image I have to face everyday, not the folks who disapprove of the choices I make.

Of course, that begs the question I am often asked.  Why don't you tell original tales in schools?

I am a big believer in telling stories in schools that will drive kids towards books.  I want them to find the 'original' of the story I told or at least try.  I want kids to run across references to the story I told them or find different forms or even see them referred to on their cartoons and say, "Hey!  I know about that!"

Much of our culture in terms of entertainment be it story lines on television, commercials, video games, and literature of all sorts have a basis in basic folklore.  The ideas in folklore permeate our culture, but many of us are not literate in the basis of these tales.  Most people have no idea that the phrase, 'You have to pay the piper' comes from the Pied Piper of Hamlin.  When I was a little girl if I woke up with dried slobber on my face, my grandmother would say, "A witch rode you around last night!"  She knew this small bit of folklore, but she did not know it had anything to do with the tale called The Boo Hag which originated in the swamps.  Nat King Cole sang a song about a buzzard giving a monkey a ride and trying to throw him off his back.  Most people don't know that story is based on an African folktale.  Occasionally a politician will come out with the phrase, 'slapping the tar baby'.  It is a phrase from one of the most famous Brer stories, but most people have no idea why they would use that saying.  I suspect they got the phrase from their grandmother or mother depending on the age of the politician.  Sometimes they don't know where that phrase came from or why people might get upset if they use it.  They also don't know how to explain what it is.  Most storytellers do.

Our kids know even less about the folktales that pervade our society than most.  We don't tell them these stories anymore.  If it is not written down in a picture book, or Disney didn't make a big deal out of it, then for many kids it doesn't exist.

So, when I go into a school...they're getting folktales.  I want them to soak in the stories that are the building blocks of so much of our day to day lives.

After I leave a school, I want to get one of those emails from a librarian where she has run out of tongue twisters, Brer books of all sorts, stories from India, Africa, China and anywhere else the tales originated.  I like to get emails from parents, bewildered as to what I might have done to their kids to make them beg to stop by the library to see if Tiki Tiki Tembo is there.  I love it when I get to a school a year later and the kids are still quoting my stories, singing Sody Saluradus or telling me they've read books with the stories I introduced to them.

So, to everyone who has wondered why I am a big stickler for folktales, this is the answer.   We stand on the shoulders of giants and see far beyond every horizon, but unless we know what is beneath the feet of those giants, we move forward without understanding.  We might as well be blind.

In other words, if you don't know where you came from, how can you truly know where you are going?

Friday, November 30, 2012

6th Grade Tales – Stories for the nonhuman

Sixth grade is a funky year for most kids.  It is a transitional year from childhood into the first blush of the teenage years. 

Sixth graders are going through a hormonal obstacle course on the inside.  Some are changing drastically on the outside, others aren’t changing at all and everyone is noticing.  All sorts of things that never bothered them before become of paramount importance.

For some, their arms and legs outgrow the rest of their bodies, leaving them awkward and clumsy.  Girls tend to sprout up, often leaving many of the boys behind for a couple of years.  Everybody starts developing towards full maturity and the blessings and curses of that tend to make pretty much everyone wish they were in someone else’s body.

This is the year some parents notice that their child is getting a bit more ‘sassy’.  These tweens need more space and less space and they vacillate between young people and children. 

Their friends change as well.  Many become concerned about being ‘cool’, not fitting in properly and what their peers think about everything.  Their friendships often change and they start finding a niche where they can fit.  Some kids don’t go through any of this at all and remain untouched by such concerns until they are older.  All and all, it can be a maddening year.

I’ve often said that sixth graders do not belong with elementary kids and they have no place as of yet with the seventh and eighth graders.  In fact, most of them should be buried beneath the school.  The good news is they only stay sixth graders for one year.

What on earth do you tell this transitional, morphing group of people?  Most think they are too old for stories and the stuff they think they want to hear is way too old for them.

The answer, for me, is push the boundaries just a bit. 

The set I offer for sixth grade is called ‘Hormonal Boys and Hyena Girls’.  It goes into the crazy stuff that happens behind the scenes in sixth grade, from the boys who think it is funny to hurt each other and don’t seem to understand how their rough play turns into an actual fight, to the girls who end up crying in the bathroom because somebody didn’t like their haircut.  The kids are always amazed I know what they are dealing with.  It never occurs to any of them that we old folks really were in sixth grade once upon a time.

This is the first group I tell really scary ghost stories.  The caveat being that I gauge the students who seem to be the most freaked out and I ease back a bit so that things don’t get too scary.  Why do I tell these kids really scary stories?  This is the first age where none of them will be willing to admit to their parents they are scared.  This means no aggrieved parents are going to call the school and complain.  Besides, they like these stories.

The second category of stories I tell to this group falls under the heading of gory and cerebral.

Morgan and the Pot of Brains is a good example of this.  A kid who is picked on until he shuts down completely goes on a lifelong quest to achieve his brains by cutting out the hearts of the things he loves best in the world.  It turns out all right, but the very graphic, funny, sad and interesting twist to the ending is right up the alley for these emerging people.

The Debate in Sign Language is also a favorite of this group.

Once I lead them through a really dark story, I can tell them fun folktales and they love it.  They don’t even remember they are too old for stories.  The truth is this group will love anything as long as you package it right, but going at them through the truths of who they are is also a good way to get them to reflect, even if only cursorily, on their own situation.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hubris and Vanity and Mythology, Oh My!

I spent a week in rural North Carolina teaching sixth graders about how to present themselves and speak clearly using Greek mythology as a medium.  It was interesting.  For starters, Greek mythology is usually an in with this age group.  Many kids find the stories interesting and with the popularity of Percy Jackson, kids are reading Rick Riordan's books with relish.  When I have to work with sixth graders, if I can use Greek myths, my battle is usually half way won.

That was not so in the community in which I found myself.  The first day I told my standard Gaia and the sky/Cronos eats his children/Zeus slays Cronos and releases his brothers and sisters/Prometheus brings fire to man/Pandora's Box/ and Argus of the hundred eyes story.  It runs through everything from Hubris to the way the world was supposed to have been created to who are the major Greek gods to what those gods did and it takes about fifteen minutes in a classroom.  Most of the kids have heard some parts of the story and they think it is pretty cool the way all of them run together.  Not so in this little rural town.

I should have realized I was in trouble when I asked them if they knew the name of the first woman Zeus made and they all responded, 'Eve'.

This was a population of children who had never heard of the Greek myths.  Some of them thought I was trying to convert them.  One child announced that he thought the Greeks were stupid to believe in such a ridiculous thing.  One child said that he hoped he didn't offend anyone, (I think he was trying to be polite to me), but he didn't believe in Greek mythology.    I didn't see that coming.  I really thought they would understand what mythology was and that these stories had been relegated to our history.  

That's when I worried I'd run into a buzz saw.  How could I do a quick and dirty explanation of what mythology is without some of them drawing parallels to Christianity?  Well, I gave it my best shot.  Then, I thought, what if I've just made things worse?  What if these precious children went home and told their parents I was trying to convert them?  I realized I'd started with too many assumptions about what they knew and didn't know about the world outside their small little patch of North Carolina.  I tried to clear up the confusion during class time, but was uncertain whether or not I'd succeeded.  I stopped by the office to warn the vice principal that she might get phone calls and the nature of said calls.

Luckily their parents did not come to school and beat me senseless for preaching against good, clean Christian values and such.  The week continued with them learning more about the Greeks as well as doing some writing and working on presentation skills.  We had a great time and they really enjoyed the myths.  Still, I must say that I have no idea how much they absorbed about Ancient Greece in terms of culture.

The second day of my visit I introduced the concept of hubris.  We spoke about it in great length and I contrasted that with the Greek's view of moderation, which is very different from our modern definition.  Here's the thing.  They remembered the word moderation, but with few exceptions, they could neither remember the word hubris nor could they recall what it was.

The third day, I put hubris up on the board once more.  Again, most of them could not remember what it was, nor could they remember how to say it.  The same thing happened the fourth day and the fifth.  On the fifth day they could remember how to say it in most classes, but they still had no idea what it was.  The same child who remembered the definition the third day was the only one who could remember it on subsequent days.  I tried different ways to explain it each day, but with no success.  We did entire activities around the concept with no success.

Most of them could remember that it had something to do with personality, but they could never get past that one word.  They would offer it up with a question mark:  Personality?

I understood from my own research that part of the problem is that many of these students were not often encouraged to offer complex answers to questions.  I understood that most of them had trouble with concepts that were visual in nature or not directly related to their own surroundings.  I understood all of that and despite my best efforts and the activities we used, I could only get one kid out of ninety to remember the word and what it meant.  The classroom teacher was a wonderful woman.  She grinned at me and said, "Welcome to my world."

The second word I introduced that they found difficult was the word vain.  One kid was very confused when I wrote the word on the board.  He thought it meant to cuss.  Obviously his grandmother and my grandmother must have known each other because she was a great one for saying, "Don't take the Lord's name in vain!"    In this instance, I was working with a word that most of them had heard, but not in the context of behavior.  I wrote the word on the board with its three different spellings and had the kids guess/talk about at least six different meanings.  They got a kick out of that and because they'd encountered the word as blood vessels and futility, (though they never called it that and when I used that word they were stunned to hear it so of course I kept at it until I heard of few of them hazard it in conversation) they were able to understand that being vain could also mean being over proud of something about yourself.  It also helps that they knew the story of Snow White.  Light bulbs went on when I talked about the queen being vain.

it is funny how you can intellectually understand what it means to encounter children with a lack of aural language and difficulty employing experiential language, but when you see it in action it can be frustrating.  Finding ways to reconnect the word vain back into their vocabulary was easy.  It was a concept they'd encountered and unbeknownst to them, they'd heard it used in the same context I was using more than once, they just hadn't realized it.  When all the pieces were laid out in front of them, they made the connection.  I never had so much luck with hubris.

As for me, I had a great time.   I was tempted to write my favorite Joseph Campbell quote on the board, "Mythology is what we call other people's sacred stories." but I was pretty sure that would really get me into trouble.

Vanity made a lasting impression.  Hubris...well, they'll hear that word again and at least it is in there and maybe it will connect at some late date.  As for what they got out of the mythology and the writing exercises, all of that is, as always, a work in progress.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stories for 3rd - 5th -Fables and Such

Stories for the third through fifth grade group are doing two very particular things.  The first and foremost thing that this group of stories does is reinforce the comprehension and pre reading skills that are central to reading success.  They often use repetition and vivid images as well as word play to create tensions that force the audience to pay attention to details.

The tales move much faster than stories for younger listeners and the plots can get complicated; the language is complex and words that are not unfamiliar are not always defined, forcing the listener to use experiential language to figure out what is happening.  These tales are driven more by disastrous choices the characters make than they are about learning language patterns and establishing the visualization of words.

Social and emotional issues take center stage in these tales.  The characters are tricksters, foolish powerful people, thieves, sneaks, and any other sort of person who is likely to get into trouble.  Their problems revolve around either trying to avoid trouble or get away with something that is not okay.  They make horrible decisions that alter their lives and sometimes there is no redemption, just a warning that making bad decisions can lead to a bad end.

The tales are a mix of fun and serious.  They make the students laugh and think.  It doesn't get any better than that!

What's the best grade to start integrating stories into curriculum?

March 7, 2012

Today I was in an elementary school in Concord, NC.  The media center specialist told me that they never have live performers come in from outside.  Both she and the principal had seen me somewhere in the past, and when they heard I was in the area, decided to have me come and address their kids.  Before I left, she told me that she really wants to work on using storytelling in the classroom.  She asked me what would be the best grade to implement such a thing.

I know I had one of those run over by a train looks on my face.  What’s the best grade?  ALL OF THEM!  That, of course, is not a helpful answer.  In a time when you have to show immediate effectiveness, and prove that something you are doing is yielding fruit immediately, that is the sort of question you are going to get about storytelling.

We have forgotten that educating a student is like using a slow cooker to make stew.  You put the raw ingredients in and turn down the heat, and over the course of many hours the various ingredients in the pot simmer and blend to become a savory stew. 

The best place to begin using storytelling as an integral part of curricular studies is preschool.  The problem with that is there is a good chance you, as a preschool teacher, will not see any of the results of this work.  You are still adding basic ingredients.  Kindergartedn and first grade teachers should also be using storytelling techniques.  You might actually see a little of this with the few kids who are really going to start grasping the concept of writing story based language, but chances are, you’re only going to see hints of what might be.  Third grade is the last grade where people are really ‘learning to read’ as opposed to reading to learn, and this is the first grade where you should see some across the board advantage for those kids who started in preschool.  

Even so, it is not until fourth grade that the true fruit of integrating storytelling into the classroom can truly be harvested.

Teachers know that a curious thing tends to happen to some fourth graders.  Kids who seemed to know how to read start having problems.  Educators discover that these kids can sound out every word and say everything on the page, but they have no idea what they are reading.  This is because they have managed to learn the mechanics of reading, but they have failed to develop the skill of comprehension.

Comprehension is the act of reading words, and relating them back to images that make sense.  Students who cannot visualize language cannot read with comprehension.  In short, if you start working on incorporating storytelling into curriculum when students are in preschool, you are less likely to have issues with their comprehension skills when they get to fourth grade.  All of this is well and good, but it doesn’t address the very serious question I was asked. 

'What is the best grade to start?' is a question that needs a long answer about building skills, but in schools today where some amorphous ‘they’ needs a provable quick answer that can be tested immediately by a rubric, the only answer that makes sense is fourth grade.

In fourth grade, exposing kids to storytelling on a regular basis can help them begin to learn the skills of comprehension they will need to become better readers.  Their brains are wired to begin integrating the concepts of words and images, so it should be possible to see a measurable difference in comprehension scores amongst students who were struggling before doing storytelling work with teachers and how they fare after.

I am brought to mind of that famous Donald Davis story about storytelling and writing.  He was teaching in a school and he had a number of kids who were struggling with writing.  He had the teachers send those kids to him in the library every Friday for a month for stories.  At the end of that time, all of the kids could write stories. 

Before you can write a story, you have to know what is in a story.  Before you can understand what is in a story, you need to realized that stories are built out of word pictures.  Before you can build pictures with words, you have to hang pictures on the words.  Before you can hang pictures on words, you have to associate those words with pictures.  If you can’t associate words and pictures, you can’t read.  You can call out words all day long, but they won’t mean anything.

So, if you need a quick fix, start in fourth grade, but, if you want to change the whole picture and have the leisure to wait, start in preschool.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Telling Spooky Tales

There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell young children.  There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell in the dark.
There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell in certain religious settings.
There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you should tell every chance you get.

How do you pick which is which and when you should do what?  Easy, that depends on your audience.

When choosing a scary story, you have to know what scares people.  If you can work out what will frighten an audience, you can figure out how far you can go, what will work, what will not work and what will be over the top.  As a performer who has taken it over the top more than once, I have had to learn this lesson the hard way.

For starters, you can guarantee that most children between second and tenth grade think that what makes a story scary is telling it in the dark.  This is not actually true.  What makes a story scary is how well you get inside your audience's head.  If you can freak them out behind their own eyeballs, then you could all be standing inside the sun itself and they would still be scared out of their wits...provided you weren't all burned alive.  Here are some quick rules of thumb I use when choosing ghost stories for audiences.

1)  When dealing with really little kids, the stories should be way more funny than scary.  Usually, it is enough to tell the group that you are going to tell them a scary story.  Their imaginations will do the rest.  They will see 'scary' written in each element of the story right up until the time you make it funny. They will announce afterwards that they weren't scared, but if you look into those giant, nervous eyes while you are setting up the tale and they are certain something really scary is about to happen, you will see that they aren't all that anxious to be frightened despite the bravado.  The Gunny Wolf is a perfect example for kids this age.

2)  From about third grade to fifth grade the stories are much more suspenseful.  There is less certainty that things are going to work out and sometimes they do not.  These stories are much more visual than the stories for the little ones and they revolve around a kid who is often facing the same kinds of fears these kids face.  I always ask a series of questions before I begin them.  The sequence goes as follows

1 - Is there anyone here who is afraid of the dark?
2 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like a night light?
3 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the closet light on?
4 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the hall light on?
5 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the bathroom light on?
6 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but the stuff in the dark makes them a little nervous?

These kids are on the precipice that leads from the fears of young childhood i.e. monsters in the closet, things under the bed, creepy creatures waiting to spring out and grab them, and the beginnings of peer pressure fears about being teased, left out, and other more real world fears.  Ghost stories for this group are usually about the hobgoblins that accompany us from our earliest years.  Red Red Lips is a good example of a fun tale for this group.  Taily Po, The Big Spooky House, The Habbiyas and many others will appeal to this group.

3)  Sixth grade is the first year I tell stories that would be good to tell in the dark.  Using lots of vocal technique and wild facial and body positions make these stories really creepy and they benefit from some lighting.  This is the first group of kids who will probably not wake their parents and demand to sleep in their bed so it is safe to scare them.  The Boo Hag is a great example for that.

4) Once you get into later middle school and high school, anything goes and you can tell those stories that are not fit for man nor beast.  Scare 'em.  Tell those stories that will peel the skin off of their hides and make them look both ways when it gets dark.  Pull out your worst stuff and let it rip...unless you are in a school that makes a point of telling you how sheltered and innocent their students are.  If you get that song and dance from the person booking it then pull everything back a notch.  No matter how into the stories the kids might be, the grown ups will be in a faint and clutching their pearls if they think you've exposed their precious charges to something inappropriate and they may never invite you back.  Appeal to your audience but remember who is paying your way.

5) Intergenerational audiences should probably stay in the 3 - 5th grade range unless you don't have any really young members of the group, then you can go with the sixth grade tales.  If you have an all adult audience let the blood drip, I say.

Spooky stories require us to walk a fine line between what is appropriate and what is too much.  For some listeners, anything is too much and for others, nothing is too much.  You can't please everyone, but these stories should also be fun, not just hair raising.

One of my favorite stories about a scary story set was one I did in upstate New York.  The guidance counselor took these two very big, somewhat disrespectful, tough looking boys out of the main body of the  audience and made them sit with her.  After the telling of The Lover's Promise, the guidance counselor came up to me trying not to laugh.  She said, "Did you see those two boys I had sitting with me?"  I nodded.  "When you asked if there was anybody who wasn't scared of anything they raised their hands.  After the story was over, one turned to the other and said, "I only jumped twice, how many times did you jump?"

Get behind their eyeballs and they won't even remember whether the lights were on or not.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Notes From The Road - Connecticut Showcase October 10, 2012

Notes From The Road are about traveling, not necessarily what I did while I once I got out of the car!

I spent this Wednesday at a Storyteller Showcase in Connecticut.  It was their very first and it was lovely.  There were only a few buyers there, but they were enthusiastic and interested.  I got some great nibbles and a bite, so it was definitely worth the trip.  That's the perspective I've got now that I'm home.  It wasn't nearly so rosy when I was in my car.

That said, it was quite the trip.  I started out on Monday, going up to my mother's house in Alexandria, VA.  You notice I say my mother's house as if my father does not live there, but he her sufferance.  That leg of the trip was easy enough as I left in good time and arrived without even needing to tell my Garmin to find me a detour around the traffic.  It wasn't until I got up the next morning that things fell apart.

I left my mom's house around ten in the morning.  I figured that would give everyone time to get to work before I got on the road.  Things went swimmingly until I got beyond the toll tunnel in Baltimore.  There were signs warning that I-95 was blocked by an accident and everyone should detour.  Well, at that point I was not sure how far up the accident was, so I did what the sign said and detoured onto route 40.  It took almost an hour to go twenty miles, and then I got back on 95, only to find that I had not gone far enough and the accident was still in front of me.  Sighing, I got off the interstate with what was left of the traffic and spent the next three hours in Maryland going down 40, a two lane local with stoplights every five hundred feet or so.  The locals must have loved that!  If I lived anywhere near forty, I would have turned around and gone home.  There is nothing I would have needed so badly that I would be willing to get into that traffic.  Lots of locals detoured out of the mess and opted for other ways to get where they were going.  The rest of us poor fools just kept following each other in slow motion bumper to bumper for miles.  I didn't get out of Maryland until after three o'clock.  You know what that means, right?  I got into the New Jersey/New York area at 5pm.

Later I found out that a fuel tanker overturned on the highway.  Nobody was hurt, but they were dealing with a huge toxic spill and possible water contamination.

Luckily, I had a short stint through New York.  What I could not have anticipated was the traffic in Connecticut.  I went through rush hour in four different cities before I finally got to East Hartford.  I didn't arrive until almost seven thirty.  Ate something, fell in bed, up by six to do a showcase.

Luckily the showcase went well.  Still and all, it lasted about fifteen minutes.  That's a long drive for fifteen minutes worth of performance.  On the bright side, I got a gig out of it.

This morning, I planned to leave at 8:30, but woke up at 6:30 because regardless of what my brain had in mind, my body was ready to go home.  I got on the road at 8am and luckily, the traffic was mostly with me.  There were a few patches of nonsense, but nothing so horrible and I have my XM radio so if things get too quiet I can always cycle through seven channels without looking down from the slow traffic.  Still, things were moving so well I decided to drive all the way home.  I got here at 7pm.  So, my trip from Alexandria to East Hartford was about as long as my trip from East Hartford back to North Carolina.

On the bright side, I finished my thoughts about a novel I hope to write someday, did some more work on my Sheherezaad(sp) piece and considered doing a two disc set of Grimm's fairytales.


Sometimes my life is more about traffic than it is about anything else.  Oh, well.  That's what I get for being a storyteller.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Is A Successful Storyteller?

Storytellers tend to feel it when we hit it out of the park.  When we leave a stage  or a classroom after having been incredibly successful, we can feel it all through our body.  There is the energy, the excitement, the lavish praise, the joyful expressions and the contentment Alas, not all events are that successful.

Sometimes we leave and we feel like we did a good job, but something was missing.  Maybe things didn't land the way we hoped they would.  Maybe we feel like it was good, but didn't rise to great.

Sometimes we leave and it seems we did an adequate job, but there was nothing that made the experience stand out.

Then, there are those shows where we feel like a train hit us on the way out the door.  What happened? Why didn't the story or stories connect?  What went wrong?

When I was at Northwestern, Jay O'Callahan came to visit.  He is a remarkable man who danced and told his way through one of my all time favorite original tales called The Herring Shed.  When he was finished, I was exhausted and in love with the images dancing in my head.  It was obviously magic.

My first set watching Jackie Torrence perform Brer Rabbit tales was beyond amazing and I sat there watching Brer Snake tempt that possum laughing my fool head off and drinking in the sound of her voice.  I never could have imagined anything so breathtaking as being part of an audience with her at the helm.  I could actually feel the magic.

After those two experiences I knew what I wanted to be.  I wanted to be a magic person.

Jay O'Callahan and Jackie Torrence were magic people, no doubt, and that's what I wanted to be.  I wanted to hit the stage someday and be that magic or as close to it as I could get.  I wanted my audience to be that spell bound and joyful when they left me.  For a long time, I worked to achieve that.  Only, in my eyes, when I became a magic person, would I be a successful storyteller.

Many years have passed since those early days of youth and ignorance, and I've seen many storytellers and told many tales.  I've worked to refine and challenge myself, and learn and work with audiences.  I've had magic moments and moments I hope to never relive.  In the end, I've figured out what success really means to me.

Success for me means I look at each audience and give them what I have.  I also strive to meet them where they are.  I hope they have a good time.  I hope they get something fun out of it.  I hope I learn something about humans or literature or nature or how people think or how to time something in a story.  I hope I get just an ounce better each year.  If you are not growing, then you are either atrophying or dying.  Learning is the only thing that makes us better.

Sometimes I miss the mark entirely and the stories don't sing.  I dissect the choices I made and debate what I might have done differently.  If I learn something that helps me in the future, I succeeded.

Sometimes I partially miss the mark and the stories limp through.  I look through the stories to see what worked, what didn't and what I could or didn't do to help.  Sometimes the problem is I stand in the way of the story.  If I work or some bit of business or figure out a way to make something transition more smoothly, I succeeded.

Sometimes I do a credible job of giving what I've got and we all have a good time, but not a transformational moment in any way shape or form.  I look through those shows and see what can be learned from the interactions with the audience and the of animation or energy I threw off during the set.  If I can find anything at all to work on, I succeeded.

Of course, every now and then, I manage the thing I always strive to do.  Every now and then, I am able to apply all of those things, those hopes, those techniques I spent my life practicing, the audience is hungry for the stories, the situation is perfect and I float into that sweet spot and we make magic.

Yes, the magic happens, but I was wrong about where it occurs.  I thought it came off the storyteller, but the truth is, it comes through the storyteller.  We are brilliant when we are conduits.

Jay O'Callahan is a magic person to me.  Jackie Torrence's magic changed my life and instructs me as a storyteller even unto this day.

As for me, I feel like I've got a handful of magic beans and every now and then, I manage to plant one. There are many ways to measure success as a storyteller.  I have learned to settle for learning, striving, trying and never getting knocked down for good even when I am discouraged.  I make my living as a storyteller.  In that, I am succeeding.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

K - 2 Pre Reading Skills - Visualizing Language

Pre Reading Stories are tales that help students focus on elements of comprehension without the mechanics of reading getting in the way.  This entry deals with the concept of visualizing language.

Being able to transform a series of words into visual images is a critical skill a person must master if they are to become strong, lifelong readers.  

We live in a society where a majority of the entertainment available for pre readers does not involve any active visualization on the part of the participant.  Video games which used to be crude affairs, can be as lifelike or perhaps even more lifelike than real life!  Things move in ultra slow motion or have 'epic' detailed scenes that send the watcher over the moon.  What these scenes do not do is force the participant to come up with their own images.  With the advent of television, hand held devices, computers, notebooks and the rest of our visual entertainment, most people do not have the opportunity to develop or practice the art of visualization.

The skill of being able to look at a string of words or even hear a string of words and convert them into images is something that most children will do only if they have to.  Example:  If you have ever tried to read a picture book to a group of kids and you neglect to show them the picture before you turn the page, you know that a small rebellion will break out in the room.  "You didn't show us the picture!"  The students are listening to you speak, but many aren't bothering to visualize.  They are waiting for you to show them what they are supposed to see.  If you ask a group of children to draw you pictures of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, you are likely to get a large number of Disney-esque looking pictures or images from some book or movie they've seen. 

Why is this so important?  Well, there is something that happens at the end of third grade that causes headaches for students who have learned how to sound out words and say simple sentences but never learned to visualize; they get to fourth grade and discover they cannot read.  Andrew Biemiller calls this the fourth grade slump.  The reason why this occurs is because between third and fourth grade students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.  They are expected to go from the simple mechanics of reading to the much more complex skill of comprehension and some of them do not have all of the pieces in place to tackle this new process.  

For many people, comprehension is a skill that seems to weave itself seamlessly into the process of reading.  For others, this plank of reading is mystifying and must be taken apart piece by piece until the student can figure out what doesn't quite work.  Sometimes a student learns to fake it and nobody is aware of their reading problems until they are in fifth or sixth grade or higher.  That's when things really get difficult.

You know you have a student who doesn't visualize well when they have trouble decoding simple sentences.  Just because a student can read a sentence doesn't mean they have any idea what they just read.  By the same token, just because a student doesn't like to read doesn't mean they can't visualize.  Sometimes a student says they don't like to read, but they are happy to read sports magazines.  If they are big sports fans, it may be much easier for them to visualize something going on during a football game or concerning their favorite athlete than the blossoming of the cherry trees at the capitol.

What does storytelling have to do with any of this?  Storytelling is an amazing way to get students to begin to do their own visualizing about a wide variety of topics.  The storyteller does not provide very many visual clues.   Their tales are all about language and images.  Building images with words is the very exercise that a brain needs as it begins to puzzle out how to build images when it is confronted by text.  Removing the mechanics of working out sounds allows the brain to focus on the dynamics of the language and the images being presented.  Students who read well or enjoy reading, talk about seeing a movie in their minds when they read.  That is what reading is supposed to do.  This is why the movie is never as good as the book for most readers.  This is why, for many people, they still see different images even after watching a movie.  The Hermione in my Harry Potter books does not look like Emma Watson.  It is nothing personal, I just see someone else.

Pre Reading stories tend to be simple tales that have very simple, visual language that is repetitive and easy to learn.  The characters are larger than life and often very exaggerated.  They fall into he realm of the folk and fairytale size creatures and they have extreme personalities.  The characters are fun, over the top in some cases, and very, very silly lots of the time.  I love it when first graders smack their foreheads in disbelief at the folly of the characters in the story.  

I am often told that the teachers and adults have as much fun looking around the audience at the kids as they do watching the storyteller.  I understand, I enjoy looking at the kids in the audience as well!  Watching them see the events unfolding in front of them is always a great deal of fun.

I leave this entry with a small event that happened some years ago.  I presented a show at a school in Evanston, Il.  It is called The Squeaky Door.  It is a silly story in which a boy is afraid of the sound a squeaky door makes and he screams.  His grandmother offers to put animals in his bed so he won't be frightened.  First she brings in a cat, then the dog, then a goat, then a horse and, depending on how the audience is reacting, a cow.  In the end, the bed breaks, grandmother puts the animals back where they belong, and then she goes next door to get the carpenter to come and fix the bed.  I performed this story for a K - 5 audience and we all had a hilarious time.  When the show was over, I had a workshop with the teachers where I was talking about visualization.  One of them stopped me and told me she thought it was hilarious the way I ran all over the stage gathering all of the animals.  I stared at her.  I don't move around the stage when I perform.  I stand in one place with a mic standing in front of me.  I told her I hadn't moved.  She didn't believe me.  In fact, none of the teachers believed me.  I pointed out that the mic was on a stand and that I would have had to drag it around the stage if I'd moved.  They stared at me, unwilling to believe that what they were certain they saw didn't actually happen.

Storytelling can transport a listener and give them images and ideas.  They are an effective tool to enhancing visualization, a key element in developing good listening and comprehension skills.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pre Reading Skills - Predictions

Pre Reading Stories are tales that help students focus on elements of comprehension without the mechanics of reading getting in the way.  This entry deals with the concept of predictions.

Being able to make predictions while reading and revise those predictions as the information is revealed is a critical skill in the process of comprehension.  Readers must learn how to pay attention to texts in a way that allows them to make both short and long term predictions.

Short term predictions are the sorts you make when you first meet a new character or encounter an event.  The text should give clues about what is happening with the characters and surroundings.  The reader should start making predictions every time some bit of information is revealed.  These predictions can be anything from 'this is a love interest', to 'I think this is the bad guy'.  As the reader goes through the text, their short term predictions about what is happening are revealed to be either correct or incorrect.  If the prediction is correct, the reader files the information away and continues building a framework for the tale.  If the reader's prediction is incorrect, then the reader must synthesize the correct information and make another prediction based on this new idea.  

The process of making short term predictions continues all the way through the text until the conclusion.  Sometimes the ending is a surprise, sometimes it is predicted.  Some readers love being right, some enjoy the surprise.  Either way, these short term predictions help them with the other kind of predictions:  Long term predictions.

Long term predictions deal with what the reader thinks is going to happen later in the story between characters, events that have yet to occur, and how the story is going to end.  These predictions take shape over a much longer time in the story and they are subject to the short term predictions.  

Predictions give a story shape.  They let the reader know that the tale is going somewhere and they get more and more of an idea where that is the longer they read.  

Students who do not predict as they read have no sense that the story is ever going to end.  They do not register events in an effective way and they do not view reading as an event that is heading towards some culminating and exciting conclusion.  It is just a bunch of events.  

My favorite example of how predictive behavior affects how we read happened when I was in a workshop given by Gerald G. Duffy.  He told the following short story.

I was flying.
There was a girl and her mother sitting across the aisle.
The mother was busy working on her laptop.  She kept pulling books out of a satchel beside her.
The little girl was looking out the window and aimlessly around the plane.  Then, she reached over and removed a book out of her mother's satchel, took a crayon out of her box and started scribbling wildly on the book.  Her mother looked up and said, "???????"

What did the mother say?  Well, I suppose that depends on the predictions you made.  When you read the first sentence did you see someone with wings?  Did you imagine they were a pilot?  Did you see a huge airplane?
Next, when you realized they were flying in some sort of conveyance, were they in first class or not?  Next, was the mother being inattentive?  Was the chid bored?  What sort of book did the child take out of the satchel?  Was it one of her own books?  Why did the child take the book?  Was it one of her mother's?  Was it okay that the child colored on it?  What color was the crayon?

All of these questions lead up to what her mother said when she saw the child coloring on the book.  As a reader, we make these predictions every time we encounter text.

Storytelling is an amazing way for students to practice the art of prediction.  Stories create vivid pictures for students and that sets the listener free to let their imaginations roam when it comes to what will happen next.  Anyone who has ever told a suspenseful story to children knows that when you get to the part when the characters are about to do something foolish the students will yell, "Don't Touch the Spinning Wheel!"  "Don't Go In There!  She's A Witch!"  "Don't Eat The Apple!"  They all know something bad is going to happen and they try to warn the characters.  The more students work on the skill of prediction, the better they will get at doing it automatically. 

Storytelling is an amazing tool in the arsenal of educators to help students develop the pre reading skill of prediction.